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Nitin Zihani Choudhary Redefines Production Design in ‘Kalki 2898 AD’

Towards the end of 2019, Nitin Zihani Choudhary met director Nag Ashwin, marking the beginning of a collaboration that would redefine the aesthetics of Indian cinema. Fresh off the success and recognition from Tumbbad (2018), a project he devoted six years to, Nitin’s talents were sought for Ashwin’s ambitious film, Kalki 2898 AD. “I was the first to be on board (in the technical team) since it would take time to develop the designs,” Nitin shared in an interview with The Hindu.

Nitin was captivated by the film’s unique narrative combining the ancient Kurukshetra war with futuristic, dystopian science fiction. “I knew it would offer me a big space to play with the design,” he remarked about the film, which stars heavyweights like Amitabh Bachchan, Prabhas, Deepika Padukone, and Kamal Haasan, and has already grossed more than ₹900 crore globally.

As a BFA graduate from the College of Art, New Delhi, with expertise in painting, sculpture, and both 2D and 3D animation, Nitin’s multifaceted skills came into full play. Despite his parents’ initial reservations about his diverse interests, he found a perfect amalgamation of his skills in cinema, beginning with storyboarding for advertisements and later contributing to significant film projects. He also collaborated extensively with the 3D and visual effects teams for Kalki 2898 AD.

Nitin’s journey into cinema saw him designing posters for Anand Gandhi’s Ship of Theseus, which paved the way for his notable work on Tumbbad. Subsequently, he worked on Atrangi Re, which gave him a glimpse into mainstream Hindi cinema. “Atrangi Re was a lovely experience,” he recollected.

When Nitin started working on Kalki 2898 AD, the screenplay was still a work in progress. The design language of the film evolved in tandem with the screenplay as Nitin’s team, including concept artists and art directors, worked on creating the city of Kasi, the Complex, Shambala, and Kurukshetra.

During initial discussions, Nitin questioned Nag Ashwin’s desire to make a film that had no clear precedence. “He had been working on the idea for a while and had his reasons,” Nitin noted. He also contemplated whether the expansive storyline could be encapsulated within a single film. Eventually, the narrative evolved into two parts, owing to the complexity and depth of the characters. For instance, Bhairava’s (played by Prabhas) character arc transitions from a selfish individual to a more developed persona by the end of the first film.

Kasi, in the film, is depicted as a crumbling city with the mighty Ganges dried up, leaving its inhabitants in dire straits due to the scarcity of food and water. “We planned a mini-city,” Nitin explained. “We built a huge set (at Shankarpally, Hyderabad) including the main street, alleys, a grand entrance, and interiors. Some set portions spanned 400×400 metres, rising to heights of 30 feet.”

Bhairava’s introduction, featuring an action sequence, was filmed on bridges of varying heights, with ruined temples adding to the dystopian ambiance of Kasi. Nitin’s team produced a 400-page lookbook detailing different facets of Kalki’s world.

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. However, concerns arose about the cohesiveness of these designs within a single setting or timeline, prompting a revisit to the drawing board. “When I say ‘we’, I refer to the whole team, including producer Priyanka Dutt; she was hands-on with the workflow,” he clarified.

Handcrafted with intricate details, Kasi was envisaged as a vertical city where demigods resided underground and rakshasas ruled the upper realms. Starving inhabitants looked up to the Complex for sustenance, with the city’s massive construction mirroring this dynamic. The visual theme featured a mix of yellows, browns, and blacks for Kasi, contrasted by the blue and green hues representing life at the Complex.

Costumes for the Complex overseers, designed by Archana Rao, prominently featured black and gold to underscore their authority. In a Complex scene featuring Bhairava and Roxie (Disha Patani), a replica of Michelangelo’s David was used, exemplifying the blending of historical and futuristic elements for the design.

Yaskin, a character conceived as a fallen god, resides in a circular, womb-like space surrounded by water. “The circular space represents his god-like status, hinting at a new evolutionary stage,” Nitin illustrated. Elements like murals tracing human evolution and foetus imagery further accented Yaskin’s chambers, establishing a symbolic relationship with his self-fashioning as a deity.

Shambala, a hidden land in the mountains, was rendered in shades of white to reflect its snowy refuge. The centerpiece was a 30-foot tree symbolizing the tree of life, constructed by the art and production team and extended through visual effects. To ensure Shambala represented a secular refuge, religious symbols were omitted in favour of the tree representing a mother god.

In the Kurukshetra scenes, meticulous craftsmanship was evident in the design of flags and chariots, with hand-threaded flags embedded with faux gemstones. A 17-foot elephant was constructed for these sequences, with visual effects enhancing its realism.

The film also featured an array of custom-built vehicles like Bujji, designed in-house and executed with assistance from Anand Mahindra’s team and Coimbatore-based Jeyam Motors. “Around 20 to 24 vehicles were designed, of which only a few were seen in the first part,” Nitin revealed.

The weapon design spanned both ancient and futuristic realms, incorporating traditional elements like Gandiva and Vijaya Dhanush bows alongside innovative sci-fi guns devoid of triggers and barrels—an endeavor akin to reinventing the wheel. They explored designs such as knuckle duster-shaped guns with complex functionalities and Cubism-inspired Shambala weapons, marked by their unconventional white colour.

Reflecting on the extensive conceptual and design process, Nitin highlighted that 80% of the effort was on paper. Anecdotes of the production process, like a temple mistakenly revered as real by the crew’s mothers, added a touch of humour and humanity to the monumental task.

On documenting the vast effort behind the film, Nitin mentioned the possibility of a coffee table book, indicating ongoing progress. Despite the immense task, the fruits of their labour are poised to leave an indelible mark on the landscape of Indian cinema.